A piano’s light tune and a single voice fills an auditorium as an ensemble joins in and intensifies an already-gripping scene. The stage becomes a beaming source of emotion, mourning the loss of a community’s loving and matriarchal figure.
At a staging rehearsal for El Camino College Theatre Department’s production of Tony-award-winning Broadway musical “In the Heights,” cast members prepare for opening night in March by running through various numbers and songs, including “Alabanza.”
The musical takes place in an ethnically Hispanic neighborhood, also known as a barrio, in Washington Heights, N.Y. and focuses on the story of Nina, a first-generation college student, and Usnavi, a bodega owner in search of belonging and family.
Created and written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also produced Grammy- and Tony-award-winning “Hamilton,” “In the Heights” brings light to a beautifully-written story that talks about current issues and uniquely traces a Hispanic community’s struggles and experiences, Music and Vocal Director Anthony Moreno said.
“It’s brought to light in a way that is not necessarily pointing a finger—it’s making it visible and it’s brought about in a way that is creatively liberating,” Moreno said. “It doesn’t even have that kind of agenda behind it but it’s hard not to at least start thinking about it, possibly even creating a discussion.”
Tapping into the El Camino College Community
Undecided major Ava Garcia, who plays Nina, noted how she pays attention to little things before getting into character. Among them, Nina’s walk and attitude is different.
But Garcia said becoming Nina is easy, as she also comes from a Hispanic household and is a first-generation college student, much like Nina in the play.
“There are just so many connections that I have with Nina that I definitely feel so freaking excited to be in this musical,” Garcia said. “It’s just not very often you see stories like this told about first-generation immigrants and first-generation college students.”
Moreno, an EC alumnus and the first in his family to attend college, also explained the musical’s relevance to the EC community.
“There’s a lot of things that a lot of first-generation college students go through,” Moreno said. “You can pick just a handful of students from El Camino and they can tell you a similar story of how much they struggle in order to keep this dream of going to school afloat.”
Feeling Seen as a Person of Color
Undecided major Daniel Olguin, who plays Usnavi, remembers a moment during rehearsal when he looked onto the stage waiting for a cue and noticed his fellow castmates, mostly people of color, just dancing and having fun.
“There was no caricature—there was no ‘Oh, he’s a thug; oh, he’s a criminal; oh, she’s just a hot Latina,’” Olguin said. “It’s very nice to see representation where it’s not just stereotypes.”
Garcia also iterated the importance of representation.
“It just feels so nice—like it’s such a simple word but it’s so nice to see people like me in a real show,” Garcia said. “I think with the [person of color] community here, I think it’s a really good thing for everyone to see.”
A Halting Road Block
The EC Theatre Department announces musical productions a year in advance but were given a shock when Production Manager Nancy Adler found performance rights were pulled for the musical due to the upcoming 2020 “In the Heights” movie.
Prior to any big-budget project like national tours or movies, performance rights are often kept under a knot, so Director Bill Georges began looking at other titles.
However, the denial to performance rights did not deter Adler as she “contacted the publishers on a daily basis until they relented and gave us permission to do the production,” Georges said.
Although overjoyed after securing the performance rights to the musical, Georges said he was adamant about presenting “In the Heights” because of its relevancy to the EC community.
“I think it’s important for cultures to see their families, the life that they know on stage,” Georges said.
He added that since rights were pulled, EC Theatre Department’s production of “In the Heights” is probably the last prior to the musical’s 2020 movie.
The musical’s opening night is on March 15 and will continue to run on March 16, 22, 23, 29 and 30 at 8 p.m. and March 17, 24 and 31 at 3 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at the.